Developer Interview: Crowned Daemon Studios

An interview with the development team at Crowned Daemon Studios, creators of the survival horror game FREAK. Currently on Steam Greenlight

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I re­cent­ly had the chance to speak with Crowed Daemon Studios, cre­ators of the game FREAK, to talk about the chal­lenges of game de­vel­op­ment, the en­vi­ron­ment in the games in­dus­try and per­ils of be­ing a sen­tient autis­tic zom­bie in 2D.

First things first, in­tro­duce your­selves and tell us a lit­tle about your in­volve­ment with the de­vel­op­ment of FREAK.

Nadia: Hi I’m Nadia and I’m in charge of tak­ing every­thing I’m told to do and mak­ing it pret­ty, AKA the art director.

Jenn: I’m Jenn and I sort of have a lot of tiny roles. I typ­i­cal­ly say I’m a pro­duc­er but I’m also PR di­rec­tor, a ju­nior artist, co-writer and sound artist.

Chris: My name is Chris, I’m the lead de­sign­er, lev­el de­sign­er, and head writer for FREAK.

How did Crowned Daemon come to­geth­er as a team? Did you all wake up one day and were like “Hey I know! Let’s make games!”

Chris: We’d all been work­ing to­geth­er on var­i­ous projects for about five years, with some of us work­ing to­geth­er for up to sev­en or twelve years. We’re all very close-knit, so when I did de­cide to make games, the choice for who to work with was obvious.

What parts of the game are you most proud of so far?

 I’m in love with the cut scenes, most­ly. Nadia and I put a lot of time and ef­fort into those and I think it re­al­ly pays off. Honestly though, I re­al­ly like how every­thing is com­ing along.

Nadia: I also re­al­ly like the cutscenes be­cause they [sic] ro­to­scope style is fair­ly unique for games and not some­thing you see uti­lized of­ten. It also fits very well with the 80s psy­che­del­ic theme that the mu­sic is in.

Chris: Even in its ear­ly stages, I love the work that our artists have put into the cin­e­mat­ics and game as­sets. Trying to fig­ure out how best to make the art work in the style of game we’re at­tempt­ing has been chal­leng­ing but I’m still im­pressed with every­thing that they’ve man­aged so far. The cin­e­mat­ics es­pe­cial­ly are in­cred­i­ble, es­pe­cial­ly af­ter the amount of time it takes to make them, to fi­nal­ly see the end re­sult makes it all worth it.

The amount of work that’s gone into the cod­ing of the game is also quite some­thing. Our pro­gram­mers have tak­en on a lot of work to get our game ready for our demo, and giv­en the win­dow of time we need­ed to have things done in they’ve per­formed ex­treme­ly well. There’s a lot of com­pli­cat­ed sys­tems in our game.

Your game [FREAK] has an autis­tic sen­tient zom­bie as a lead char­ac­ter, was this a de­lib­er­ate choice from day one or did the char­ac­ter evolve dur­ing development?

Chris: It was a choice from day one. There aren’t a lot of autis­tic char­ac­ters in games, and only one of them (to my aware­ness) is male, and none of them are main char­ac­ters. Making Tinker a part-zombie was also a very con­scious de­ci­sion on our part, as it plays a part in sub­vert­ing ex­pec­ta­tions of autis­tic peo­ple in me­dia (es­pe­cial­ly games me­dia) hav­ing oth­er­world­ly powers.

Recently there was some con­tro­ver­sy and seem­ing hys­te­ria about com­ments made by in­dus­try vet­er­an Ken Levine about autis­tic char­ac­ters. Do you wor­ry about the po­ten­tial back­lash that try­ing to cre­ate cer­tain types of char­ac­ter can bring?

Jenn: It’s def­i­nite­ly a con­cern that peo­ple will not like spe­cif­ic char­ac­ters or that there might be back­lash be­cause of the way they are por­trayed, but in the end we’re very se­ri­ous about cre­at­ing re­al­is­tic and in­ter­est­ing char­ac­ters who com­pli­ment the game. We could choose to ag­o­nize about re­ac­tions to them and wa­ter down our game as a re­sult but in the end that would be a dis­ser­vice to peo­ple who play the game and peo­ple who are like those char­ac­ters in reality.

Chris: I would say that I’m wary, not wor­ried. So far the re­ac­tion has been pos­i­tive. Sure there are some peo­ple who have snick­ered at the idea or raised an eye­brow, but this is not dis­cour­ag­ing to us at all. Those re­ac­tions are why we felt this game had to be made with the char­ac­ters it has.  Autism is wide­ly mis­rep­re­sent­ed and mis­un­der­stood in the me­dia, and the only way that’s go­ing to change is if peo­ple step for­ward and start speak­ing for them­selves from their own ex­pe­ri­ences. This also ap­plies to oth­er char­ac­ters and cre­ators from all va­ri­ety of backgrounds.

As to Ken Levine specif­i­cal­ly, I per­son­al­ly think the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing his re­marks was overblown and his re­marks twist­ed to re­flect an opin­ion he doesn’t ac­tu­al­ly hold. If peo­ple in gam­ing want to have a gen­uine con­ver­sa­tion or un­der­stand­ing about peo­ple with autism, the first thing they’re go­ing to have to do is ac­knowl­edge that not all peo­ple with autism are nec­es­sar­i­ly good peo­ple, just like not all peo­ple of any group are in­her­ent­ly good. Autistic peo­ple, like any oth­er, have flaws, moral fail­ings, and make bad choic­es. Denying the abil­i­ty of a group of peo­ple to do bad makes any good they do mean­ing­less. I have the dis­tinct feel­ing this is go­ing to be a top­ic that comes up of­ten in dis­cus­sion of our game lead­ing into its re­lease as well as af­ter­wards, but that is where we stand on the issue.

Do you think it is eas­i­er or hard­er to make the kind of game you want to than it was five years ago?

Chris: Undeniably eas­i­er. While we’ve only been in the busi­ness of mak­ing games for a short time, all the things we rely on to make, mar­ket, and dis­trib­ute our game have been re­cent phe­nom­e­non. It has nev­er been eas­i­er to make a game, and with­out this ease I don’t think we could have got­ten Freak even this far.

How use­ful have you found in­dus­try bod­ies like the IGDA in fa­cil­i­tat­ing de­vel­op­ment? Would you like to see a bet­ter sup­port net­work for developers?

Chris: I’ve had a mixed ex­pe­ri­ence with the IGDA. On one hand, I at­tend­ed one of their mee­tups once and met a lot of nice gamedev peo­ple in my area, which was nice and helped me make a lot of in­dus­try con­tacts (and a signed game poster, which was cool). On the oth­er hand the IGDA en­dorsed a block bot which list­ed me as a ha­rass­er and still has yet to ad­e­quate­ly apol­o­gize to my­self and oth­er de­vel­op­ers who have been put onto this list.

CDVNO6xUUAAGHs_Looking at FREAK, the game has some rather strik­ing an­i­mat­ed se­quences. How chal­leng­ing has achiev­ing these been as a small stu­dio been?

Nadia: Not gonna lie, it has been my biggest chal­lenge as an artist so far. It’s a labour of love, but the labour is al­ways there. I am the only one draw­ing the frames, which leads to long days and few breaks to make sure I can de­liv­er qual­i­ty as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. That’s the re­al­i­ty of an­i­ma­tion though, but when you’re work­ing on such a small team it can get pret­ty over­whelm­ing. I think peo­ple see an­i­ma­tion and for­get that, es­pe­cial­ly in 2d, there are peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for ever line, colour and ef­fect tak­ing place. For ex­am­ple, I am cur­rent­ly draw­ing a scene at 24fps. That is 24 draw­ings for every sec­ond of footage you see. It makes for some pret­ty sweet move­ment, but damn is it taxing.

Jenn: The an­i­mat­ed se­quences are def­i­nite­ly time con­sum­ing. For those who aren’t fa­mil­iar with ro­to­scop­ing, it’s ba­si­cal­ly when you draw over video cap­tured footage, which is what gives it that hy­per re­al­is­tic move­ment that I think a lot of peo­ple are im­pressed by. Even this de­scrip­tion is a lit­tle mis­lead­ing though, be­cause when Nadia draws the frames she isn’t just “trac­ing”, she’s trans­lat­ing the im­ages into the style used for the video game as well.

Do you think Zombies have been over­done as a game en­e­my or will they al­ways be fun to smush?

Chris: I don’t think peo­ple will ever get sick of zom­bies as a whole so long as the games are well-designed and do enough to stand out from the crowd, just like any oth­er game genre. I think the over­sat­u­ra­tion peo­ple de­scribe re­volv­ing around zom­bie me­dia is the fact that zom­bie me­dia of all kinds has al­ways been cheap to pro­duce in movies and TV, and the same holds true for games. With cheap­ness to pro­duce comes a lot of stuff that is poor qual­i­ty, which can lead to a lot of peo­ple be­ing turned away from the genre as a whole just like a lot of peo­ple prob­a­bly wouldn’t want to jump into a pool with a lot of leaves and scum on the top. I think there will al­ways be peo­ple will­ing to take that plunge though, and those who do jump in and find trea­sure at the bot­tom will sure­ly bring it up for oth­ers to see.

Jenn: I can see why peo­ple say that zom­bies are over­done but hon­est­ly they’re al­ways go­ing to be a fun en­e­my. They’re pret­ty unique in that you can have var­ied sto­ries about how they came about and how they act. Zombie games aren’t nec­es­sar­i­ly all go­ing to be the same just be­cause zom­bies are involved.

Nadia: Saying zom­bies are over­done is like say­ing hu­mans are over­done. There is al­ways go­ing to be a mar­ket for zom­bies, even in a sat­u­rat­ed mar­ket. Zombies are fun be­cause, at least in my opin­ion, hor­ror and the oc­cult are fun. Unlike in­tel­li­gent en­e­mies zom­bies have no side. They aren’t fight­ing for a cause; they don’t care who you are or what you’ve done. And in some cas­es don’t even have a rea­son for want­i­ng to tear your face off. That is freak­ing ter­ri­fy­ing. It’s be­yond even an­i­mal­is­tic needs and de­sire. That is what makes them so fun, be­cause your pri­ma­ry goal around them is sim­ply to survive.

Is Crowned Daemon a full time job or does the team have day-jobs to pay the bills?

Chris: We cur­rent­ly have a mix of both, there are some in­di­vid­u­als who need to be work­ing full time on the game for us to move for­ward at all and every­one else is part time. It’s our hope that in the fu­ture we’ll be able to have every­one work­ing full time for the company.

There has been mixed opin­ion about [Valve’s] Greenlight since its in­cep­tion. How do you feel about the process of get­ting a game on steam?

Chris: I think that the val­ue the green­light sys­tem of­fers to in­die de­vel­op­ers can­not be over­stat­ed. I think Steam has done a good job of try­ing to stop de­vel­op­ers from ma­nip­u­lat­ing the sys­tem, such as when groups of de­vel­op­ers were get­ting to­geth­er and agree­ing to up-vote each other’s games en masse. That said, it does seem like to make the most of Greenlight you need to have a fan­base go­ing in, which de­feats the pur­pose of Greenlight be­ing used as a tool to dis­cov­er games. My guess is this is be­cause of Greenlight’s rep­u­ta­tion of hav­ing lots of low-quality games on dis­play, which dis­cour­ages some peo­ple from both­er­ing to pe­ruse Greenlight un­less the game goes vi­ral, which isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a guar­an­tee of the game’s qual­i­ties or merits.

I know Steam has been plan­ning on over­haul­ing the sys­tem, so I don’t know if they in­tend to try to fix these prob­lems in the fu­ture. In the mean­time I still be­lieve that Greenlight, de­spite its faults, is in­valu­able to de­vel­op­ers and shouldn’t be writ­ten off entirely.

Last of all, where can we find each of you and where can we find info on your projects? Shill away. 

Jenn: Our com­pa­ny web­site is in the process of be­ing com­plete­ly over­hauled right now, but can still be ac­cessed at . We al­ways love more fol­low­ers on Facebook and Twitter. Lastly, if you feel like you might like to play our game in the fu­ture and you like what you see, please help us get green­lit on Steam Greenlight here.

If you want to chat with me per­son­al­ly, you can reach me at @RobotLamia on twit­ter, al­though I should warn you that I’m ac­tu­al­ly pret­ty shy out­side of busi­ness sit­u­a­tions! If you want to talk busi­ness, you can reach me di­rect­ly at “ .”

Chris: If you want to talk to me, my twit­ter is @Daemonpro if you want to do small talk. For more se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tions you’d be best suit­ed reach­ing out to me at so that we’re not lim­it­ed to 140 characters.

Nadia: If you want to chat you can reach out to me on twit­ter @MissTaxidermy. To see my art I have my port­fo­lio here and my tum­blr.

A big thanks to the folks at Crowned Daemon for this en­light­en­ing in­ter­view. Shown be­low is an ear­ly al­pha game­play trail­er for FREAK, cur­rent­ly on Greenlight


(Disclosure: Members of SuperNerdLand do fol­low and com­mu­ni­cate with some of Crowned Daemon Studios team mem­bers over so­cial me­dia, but nei­ther the au­thor nor SuperNerdLand are fi­nan­cial­ly or pro­fes­sion­al­ly af­fil­i­at­ed with Crowned Daemon stu­dios. This in­ter­view was sought out of in­ter­est in the project and re­spect for the team.) 

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John Sweeney is a ter­ri­bly British man with a back­ground in en­gi­neer­ing. He writes long-form ed­i­to­r­i­al con­tent with analy­sis of gam­ing, games me­dia and in­ter­net cul­ture. He also does the oc­ca­sion­al video game ret­ro­spec­tive with a week­ly col­umn about Magic the Gathering thrown in for good mea­sure. He also does most of our in­ter­views for some rea­son, we have no idea why. A staunch sup­port­er of free speech and con­sumer rights; skep­ti­cal of agen­da dri­ven me­dia and sus­pi­cious of un­ac­cou­table au­thor­i­ty but al­ways hope­ful for change.
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